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Ofir Barak
Ofir Barak
Ofir Barak

Ofir Barak

Country: Israel

My name is Ofir Barak, I'm a photographer based here in Jerusalem.

I can honestly say that I have been an artistic person all my life. I started out as a painter and was very passionate about it from a very early age. In 2013 I was lacking the motivation to create I was frustrated and I decided to put it aside and look for a new path to express myself through art.

I needed to travel somewhere and clear my mind and look for answers. In order to move beyond my struggle, I needed to surround myself with every form of art I could find - literature, poetry, paintings, architecture - anything goes. I remembered that the museums in D.C have free admission, so I decided to go there. Each day I wandered into a different museum and enjoyed the art galleries. One day, accidentally, I entered an exhibition of a photographer from the wrong side - where people exit. I didn't know who the photographer was, but I was struck by his images.

At that moment, I had an epiphany - this is what I want to do. This is what I can do. I spent two hours at the gallery and realized that I just couldn't consume it all in once. I went back there three more times to learn about the photographer - Garry Winogrand and each time I focused on different photographs. In the exhibition there was also a small screening room showing his famous talk at Rice University. I took a notebook with me each visit and sat at the corner of the room - writing down what I want to achieve and how. After returning home, i decided to work on a first project of my own.

Between the years 2014 and 2017, I photographed constantly and on a weekly basis the neighborhood of Mea Shearim. I attended protests, holidays and weekdays tring to present a full documentation of a religious society here in Jerusalem. After 3 years and 15k pictures, a self published book was released under the title of "Mea Shearim - The streets".

The project was well received within the world of photography rewarding me a Magnum Photos prize for the street photograph of the year, and a nomination for a Hasselblad masters in 2018. Parts of the project were exhibited in different locations including the jewish museum in berlin, the Lucie foundation - Month of photography photo book exhibition in the Us and many others.

After completing this project, I have realized it has now become a starting point to a much larger project regarding religion in Jerusalem and a three parts books. The book is sold here at the event and if you liked the talk, feel free to take a look in the open copy and purchase one.


About the Streets of Mea Shearim

During the 1870s the city within the walls of Jerusalem were undergoing a serious crisis. An increase in population, especially in the Jewish quarter, resulted in high housing prices and poor sanitation.The Ottoman government failed to remove garbage dumps and eventually the pollution seeped into the water pits, causing a rise in disease and mortality rates among the population within the walls. This drove the Jewish community to establish neighborhoods outside the walls, and by 1873 four such neighborhoods were built - "Mishkenot Sha'ananim" (1880), "Mahane Israel" (1886), "Nahalat Shiva" (1869) and "Beit David" (1873).

A small group of about one-hundred young Ashkenazi Jews who believed that moving outside the walls would help them improve their standard of living, decided in 1874 to combine their resources. They were able to purchase a tract of land outside the walls for a new settlement. It would have one-hundred houses and would serve as the fifth neighborhood outside the city walls. The name which they chose for that piece of land, Mea Shearim, was derived from a verse in the Torah portion that was read in the week the neighborhood was founded: "Isaac sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold (Mea Shearim); God had blessed him" (Genesis 26:12).

Construction began around April 1874, by both Jewish and non-Jewish workers. Contractors, builders and plasterers were Christian Arabs from Bethlehem, and Jewish craftsmen also contributed. By December 1874, the first ten houses were standing. At first Mea Shearim was a courtyard neighborhood, surrounded by four walls with gates that were locked every evening. By October 1880, 100 apartments were ready for occupancy and a lottery was held to assign them to families. Between the years 1881 and 1917, more houses and neighborhoods were built. New neighborhoods surrounded Mea Shearim and helped establish a large Jewish presence outside the walls. By the turn of the century there were 300 houses, a flour mill, and a bakery.

Mandatory Palestine under British administration had been carved out of Ottoman southern Syria after World War I. The British civil administration in Palestine operated from 1920 until 1948. During its existence the country was known simply as Palestine. The British regime was welcomed by the residents of Mea Shearim, who maintained good relations with the authorities for the good of the neighborhood. As a result, access roads to the area were improved, the neighborhood markets prospered, old shops were renovated, and new shops opened. Mea Shearim continued to grow, and by 1931 it was the third largest neighborhood in Jerusalem. This growth enhanced the neighborhood's status and importance, but daily life became more difficult, as many of the houses were populated with a large number of people resulting in sanitary conditions that endangered their health. The neglect of the Ottoman regime continued to set the tone, and lack of proper drainage caused rain to flood the streets and even people homes. There was a rise in poverty, resulting not only in a deterioration of the houses outer appearance but also in a spread of diseases. The neighborhood's uniform appearance also began to change, as different kinds of constructions materials came into use, resulting in non-uniform façades. Cheap tin became an alternative to the Jerusalem stone commonly used for construction.

In 1948 the Arab-Israeli war broke out and Jerusalem was divided between two countries - Israel and Jordan. The border was very close to Mea Shearim and the neighborhood suffered from military attacks and damage to buildings. Within the next 20 years ,the neighborhood would suffer from decreasing population as the children of the second founding generation moved to orthodox neighborhoods nearby, leaving as few as 170 houses occupied out of a total of 304. In later years the residents returned and the population grew once again. The population remained isolated and segregated, because it refused to cooperate with the government of Israel. Street posters (Pashkvilim) began to appear on a public walls calling on residents not to serve in the Israeli army, not to vote or be elected to the Israeli parliament, and not to participate in Israel's Independence Day celebrations.

Today, Mea Shearim remains loyal to its old customs and preserves its isolation in the heart of Jerusalem while trying to stave off the modern world; it is, in a way, frozen in time. The numerous renovations of houses at the end of the 20th century hardly affected the appearance of the neighborhood. They are still common today but fewer in numbers. Houses that were built over one hundred years ago stand alongside a few new ones. The life of the Hasidic community still revolves around strict adherence to Jewish law, prayer, and the study of Jewish religious texts. The large majority of the people are Ashkenazim; there are hardly Sephardic Jews in the neighborhood. In addition to some well-to-do family there are also many needy ones, which are helped by local charity institutions. The traditional dress code remains in effect here; for men and boys it includes black frock coats and black hats. Long, black beards cover their faces and many of them grow side curls called "payots".Women and girls are urged to wear what is considered to be modest dress - knee-length or longer skirts, no plunging necklines or midriff tops, no sleeveless blouses or bare shoulders. Some women wear thick black stockings all year long, and married women wear a variety of hair coverings, from hats to wigs and headscarves. The common language of daily communication in Mea Shearim is Yiddish, in contrast to the Hebrew spoken by the majority of Israel's Jewish population. Hebrew is used by the residents only for prayer and religious study, as they believe that Hebrew is a sacred language to be used only for religious purposes.

This is the story of the ongoing battle between the old and the new, the past versus the present, this is the everyday life of a city within a city.

My grandmother and I had a special bond.

We developed a habit that once a week, usually on Mondays, we cleared our schedule and sat down to discuss the photographs I took. We talked the stories behind the photos, the people, even how the weather affected the light in the pictures. At first, photography was something foreign for both of us and with time, we developed a passion for it. We loved our gatherings and anticipated them every week. In early 2014 things changed, we had fewer opportunities for our weekly routine as her health had begun to deteriorate. She received treatments on a weekly basis and eventually had to be under medical supervision and hospitalized. On one of the visits as I sat by her bed, I wanted to ease her mind from the treatments she received and asked if she would like to see a photograph I took the day before. She immediately said yes and was very enthused when I showed her the photograph. We ended up taking and analyzing the photo as we used to, freeing our minds from the hospital room we were in. Neither of us knew that it would be our last time together.

After her death, I decided to do a project based on the last photograph she ever saw. This one photo has led me on a journey, photographing the streets of Mea Shearim.

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Robert Doisneau
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1912 | † 1994
Born in April 1912 in an upper middle class family, in the Parisian suburbs (Gentilly), Robert Doisneau started showing an immoderate interest in the arts at a very early age. Robert Doisneau lost his parents at an early age and was raised by an unloving aunt. Aged 14, he enroled at the Ecole Estienne a craft school where he graduated in 1929 with diplomas in engraving and lithography. A year later, he started working for « Atelier Ullmann » as a publicity photographer. In 1931, Robert Doisneau met his future wife Pierrette Chaumaison, with whom he will have three children and also started working as an assistant for modernist photographer, André Vigneau. André Vigneau will introduce Robert Doisneau to a « new objectivity in Photography ». In 1932, Robert Doisneau sold his first photographic story to Excelsior magazine. In 1934, car manufacturer Renault hired Robert Doisneau as an industrial photographer in the Boulogne Billancourt factory. He was fired in 1939 as he was consistantly late. Without a job, Robert Doisneau became a freelance photographer trying to earn his living in advertising, engraving and in the postcard industry. Shortly before WWII, Robert Doisneau was hired by Charles Rado, founder of the Rapho Agency. His first photographic report on canoeing in Dordogne was abruptly interrupted by the war declaration. Drafted into the French army as soldier and photographer he was relieved from duty in 1940. Until the end of the war, he used his skills to forge passports and identification papers for the French Resistance. After the war, Robert Doisneau became a freelance photographer and rejoined with the Rapho agency (1946). It is probably at this time that mutual influence with Jacques-Henri Lartigue found its origin. He started producing numerous photographic stories on various subjects: Parisian news, popular Paris, foreign countries (USSR, United-States...). Some of his stories will be published in prestigious magazines, LIFE, PARIS MATCH, REALITES... In 1947, Robert Doisneau met Robert Giraud with whom he will have a life long friendship and a fruitful collaboration. Doisneau will publish more than 30 albums such as “La Banlieue de Paris” (The suburbs of Paris, Seghers 1949) with texts written by French Author Blaise Cendrars. From 1948 to 1953, Robert Doisneau also worked for Vogue Magazine as a fashion photographer. It is also at that time that he joined Group XV and participated alongside Rene Jacques, Willy Ronis and Pierre Jahan in promoting photography and its heritage preservation. In 1950, Robert Doisneau created his most recognizable work, le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville for Life magazine. Although Doisneau’s most recognized work dates from the 1950’s and old style magazine interest was declining in Europe in the early 1970’s, Doisneau continued to produce children’s books, advertising photography and celebrity portraits. His talent as a photographer has been rewarded on numerous occasions: Kodak prize 1947 Niepce Prize recipient in 1956 In 1960, he held his first solo exhibition in Chicago (Museum of Modern Art) In 1975 he is the guest of honour of les “Rencontres d’Arles” Grand prix National de la Photographie 1983 Balzac Prize recipient 1986 In 1991, the Royal Photographic Society awarded Robert Doisneau an Honorary Fellowship (HonFRPS) Robert Doisneau died in 1994, six months after his wife. He is buried alongside her in Raizeux.
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AAP Magazine #22: Streets
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